ST PATRICK’S, ROKEWOOD

(ROMAN CATHOLIC)
COLAC-BALLARAT ROAD, ROKEWOOD

One more disposal in what looks like a clearance sale.

St Patrick’s, Rokewood, now sold to a new owner. The church was built in 1927.

The Roman Catholic authorities in Ballarat are at it again, selling off a perfectly good solid church building which will now be mutilated architecturally by being put to some secular use, probably as someone’s house. They’d hardly got the very handsome St Thomas Aquinas’s at Clunes off their hands – an act of cultural vandalism if ever there was one – when St Patrick’s, Rokewood, was on the market. The church was put up for auction at the request of the parish priest, who had been obliged to drive the 50 kilometres or so from his other church in Ballarat to celebrate a monthly Mass there. He’ll now not have to bother. The dozen or so people who made up the congregation will do the travelling instead, to their nearest church at Linton, 32 kilometres away, as long as that lasts. They could have gone to Springdallah, which is a bit nearer, but that was sold a couple of years ago and has already been given the usual treatment and put to domestic use.

The former Catholic church at Springdallah has pretty Gothic windows in the Early English style. It exemplifies the rule that, once sold for conversion into a house, a church is usually disfigured by solar panels, iron stovepipes and other unsuitable domestic additions.

The congregation was adduced as a reason for the Rokewood sale, in that, according to the parish priest, “[l]ow numbers and the effort required to ready the building for a monthly Mass were taking its toll on the small community.” It’s hard to see what “toll” that would have been, and wouldn’t they have preferred to keep their local church?

Rokewood is a township of around 200 people south of Ballarat. St Patrick’s, on a wide block as you enter the town from the north, is a plain Gothic Revival building in red brick and cement render with a slate roof. It’s largish for a small township, with a long nave of five bays and separate chancel with lateral sacristies. It’s also, as churches go, not that old. The foundation stone was laid on 16 October 1927.

The foundation stone of St Patrick’s, laid in 1927.

The building is of simple design and has some attractive details, such as the sets of three lancet windows above the entrance porch and on the (liturgical) east wall of the chancel. The tripartite theme is repeated under the upper section of the front gable by a boxed half-timbered panel supported on corbels. This gives the façade a faintly non-ecclesiastical look. The external walls are handsomely buttressed. The church has eaves rather than parapets, unusual in a Gothic Revival building.

Porch and main façade of St Patrick’s, Rokewood. Unusually for a Gothic Revival church, it has eaves instead of parapets.

The Catholic diocese of Ballarat needs to take its responsibility as custodian of country churches more seriously. It has sold at least five recently in what looks like a clearance sale of churches it no longer wishes to maintain. We know that the countryside is depopulated and that fewer people go to church but are these sales really worth it compared to what is lost? They inevitably result in the disfigurement of a building that earlier generations paid for, measured the course of their lives in with baptisms, weddings and funerals, and carefully looked after. Once a church is sold, various unsuitable domestic accoutrements are tacked on in the form of solar panels, glazed extensions and coolie-hat-capped iron chimneys in the manner of that depicted by nursery-rhyme illustrators on the old woman who lived in a shoe’s residence. These ruin the appearance of the exterior, while the inside is partitioned up – even though there never seems to be a way of exorcising a chill echo that permeates the cavernous nave-cum-living room. Frankly, it would less of an affront to the integrity and, indeed, the sanctity of a church to pull it down.

The half-timbered panel under the gable repeats the tripartite theme of the lancet windows.

Or in the case of architecturally valuable churches, such as the very fine St Joseph’s, Blampied, unused but happily still unsold, if they must be closed, give a key to a sympathetic neighbour, lock the church, ensure essential maintenance and hold on to the building against demographic change. Some country towns are growing again – Clunes is a case in point – and the time may come when the church can be reopened. In the meantime, as the Anglicans have found at Rupanyup, it will sometimes be requested for weddings and funerals.

Side view of porch and main front of St Patrick’s, Rokewood. Note the clustered corner buttresses and well-kept slate roofs.
Notice on the porch door. What Covid cancelled temporarily the sale of the church has made permanent.

The Catholic diocese of Ballarat, though, is perhaps a special case. It needs the money from the sale of churches and other property (the presbytery at Linton was up for sale at the same time as the Rokewood church), mainly to pay vast sums to the “victims” of clerical child sexual abusers of the past, who made up for their limited numbers by the scale of their offending. (Why it needs also to perpetuate these unhappy events with a proposed “memorial” at the Ballarat cathedral is a mystery, unless it be to try to ingratiate itself with the influential and aggressive “survivor” lobby in Ballarat, most of whom are secularists and unlikely to be placated by anything the Church might do anyway. Besides, there have been no cases of abuse in the Ballarat diocese for over two decades. Better to leave past sins in the past and move on.)

The nave of St Patrick’s, Rokewood is of five bays, making. It quite a large church for so small a township.

Rokewood will not be the last of these sales. We shall watch with concern where next in the Ballarat diocese the blow will fall.

The Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church at Rokewood is still open for Sunday services. It was built in 1866, in bluestone with freestone dressings to a design by Alexander Davidson. The spire, with its unusual adaptation of a broach at the base and canopied upper openings, was added in 1905.

Rokewood also has a notable Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church, bluestone with a spire. It was built in 1866 with the spire added in 1905. Given that the Uniting Church is also a keen disposer of its rural buildings, one must hope it remains viable. 

The end of the story. The church seems to have been sold with its pews and other furnishings, such as an unusual altar and pulpit of “crazy” stonework, still in situ.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

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